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Cautious budgeting lets city add to savings

ALPENA — The City of Alpena tries to keep enough money in the bank to cover between 10% and 20% of its annual general fund expenses.

The Alpena Municipal Council was told on Monday the city’s savings had jumped up to 30% of expenses.

At the end of the 2019-20 budget year, which ended on June 30, the city had $3.1 million in unassigned cash, enough money to cover the city’s expenses for 117 days.

City Manager Rachel Smolinski said conservative budgeting and limited spending early in the COVID-19 pandemic helped city savings build to that amount, as did several capital improvement projects that were pushed back.

“When COVID hit, we went down to only essential spending,” she said. “There were a lot of questions on how it would affect us, so we ran a very conservative budget.”

At that point, it wasn’t known how much money the city would receive from state revenue sharing or how much other revenue streams would produce, Smolinski said. She said some of those questions remain, and the city will continue to be prudent in its spending and saving.

“We’ll continue to be conservative,” Smolinski said.

Smolinski said some of the savings could be used on capital projects over the next several years. She said some of the projects are becoming more urgent and will need to be addressed before too long. She said that could include street and utility improvements or purchasing needed equipment.

Smolinski said city employees will begin those discussions soon, and then they will have to be approved by the council.

“We cut a lot of projects, but, when you do that, you generally have to make up for it, eventually,” she said. “Those projects are mostly general maintenance for the city. We will go back and look at the high-priority projects.”

To balance the budget, cuts were made by each department head and the employees, Smolinski said. She said ending the budget year in the black wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for their hard work and dedication.

“They are the ones making the sacrifices in their offices,” she said. “We were asking for a balanced budget and the cuts came from them. They were an integral part of us getting to this point.”

Smolinski said the city is already in its initial phase of the 2021-22 budget process. She said the annual capital improvement plan will begin to be updated in February, and then staff will begin to sort through the project requests.

The new budget will begin on July 1.

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